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How to spend a billion (Google) dollars

Consultant Paul Lamb suggests that making a difference in the world could itself become the next big thing.

Google.org, the search giant's philanthropic arm, is managing a commitment of roughly $1 billion to work on global issues such as poverty, energy and the environment over the next 20 years.

While that's a lot of clams, how much will $1 billion really buy you in global social change--particularly if spent over a 20-year time frame?

It works out to about $50 million a year, minus foundation administrative expenses. Assuming that Google indeed allocates $1 billion to the foundation, and the foundation elects to spend it all down (foundations are only required to spend 5 percent of their assets each year), that would leave roughly $47.5 million a year for direct donations.

Why not leverage the power of Google's search engine to solicit ideas from Google users directly?

What will $47.5 million a year get you in today's dollars? According to economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the United Nations Millennium project, a contribution of $110 a person a year can lift a dirt-poor village out of poverty in five years. That means a $47.5 million annual investment could move half a million people out of the world's 1 billion desperately poor each year. And if Sachs' five-year plan is correct, in 20 years a $1 billion allocation could potentially raise close to 2 million people out of poverty.

Now that is an achievement any socially responsible billionaire would be proud to own.

But we have to remember that Google has built its reputation on being the odd corporate duck, and the Google.org is likely to want to distinguish itself from the established do-gooder billionaire club. Google.org is competing with the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, currently valued at $28.8 billion, which made well over $1 billion in global health and education grants last year alone.

Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have stated publicly that, beyond devoting significant resources, they are also interested in "ambitiously applying innovation" to the largest of the world's problems. So, let's talk innovative.

How about leveraging the Google billion and joining with other billionaire philanthropists to do what world governments have proven incapable of doing? Why not establish a globally operated "just in time" detection and transport system that redirects surplus food and supplies to everyone who needs them, when they need them.

Google could set up free, mobile medical monitoring and care units in underserved communities worldwide, utilizing electronic health implants, computerized tracking systems, and mobile supply and distribution centers operating on an as needed basis.

Further, it could try to connect and empower communities all over the world via virtual community centers that offer self-organizing and social-collaboration tools, including real-time feedback mechanisms from individual households on community needs and the performance of elected and community officials.

In addition, Google.org could choose to innovate on the homefront immediately. Right on the Google campus they could build an economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable global village inhabited by people of all backgrounds, races, and belief systems (including Google employees) to represent a positive and achievable vision for the future.

The company could try to leverage in-house technologies and R&D to create a separate "technology for good" division within the company that produces products and services specifically to address challenges in the social sector.

Another idea: Issue all Google employees social credit cards that encourage each individual to lend or borrow "social credit" with others in their local and global neighborhoods in the form of volunteer time or expertise. The 20 percent work time that Google employees currently are granted for individual projects could also be offered up as time to work on socially significant efforts specifically.

Finally, why not leverage the power of Google's search engine to solicit ideas from Google users directly? A simple question like "How should Google spend a billion dollars to change the world for the better?" on Google's home page would undoubtedly generate a lot of great ideas. That's putting a billion minds to work for you, and it wouldn't cost a dime.

There are lots of good ways to spend a billion dollars. But if Google.org stays true to the vision of Sergey and Larry--who suggest that Google the foundation could eventually eclipse Google the company in overall impact--then maybe making a difference in the world will itself become the next big thing.